Practical Ethics: A tiny step forward - I blog about whether the induced pluripotent stem cells that recently were used to produce complete mice should be regarded as embryos.
I am pretty impressed by the tricks used in this process. Viral inclusion of genes whose overexpression is needed for pluripotency, making tetraploid embryos that become placentas etc - a lot of it is pretty science fictional, but relatively standard (if, given the failure rate, shaky) protocols. There is a surprising amount of hidden science behind every headline result - consider the tricky math of trajectory planning for spacecraft, the complex software and numerical methods used in large-scale simulations, the data processing of astronomy. Each discipline contains a hidden mountain of practice that constitutes a majority of its findings - often unpublished, informal and yet essential.
The talk is split into 12 parts. As I said, I am long-winded.
David Eagleman's Sum: forty tales from the afterlives seems to be popular and quirky. Marginal Revolution pointed me to one of the stories, expectations. It is a riff on whole brain emulation, and much more interested in the philosophical problem with expectations of untestable post-life rewards than scanning brains. But I think it shows an important problem to consider when thinking about WBE: how do we manage the expectations during the run-up?
Another story, Descent of species is probably the most poetic and convincing argument for striving for posthumanity I have ever heard.
As long as owning a car is an important status symbol and a way of signaling who you are, the car itself and its status-enhancing features are important. Similarly, when cars are expensive and hard to get, then having ownership is important. But there is no reason to own the car when the car is relatively cheap, anonymous and just a way of getting from point A to B flexibly.
I recently heard about one electric car project where the expensive part was the batteries, not the car. Basically it was a service: you subscribe to batteries and recharging stations, and get the car more or less for free. Similarly, why keep all the smarts I discuss in my blog in the car, when it might make sense to keep much of it in the cloud? There are of course safety reasons why we want to keep some smarts in the car, and we will not give up control over the access to the car easily. But the idea that we have to own all of the car, that it is a material thing rather than a distributed service, that seems to be questionable.
An interesting point, which I think makes much sense. We are seeing similar trends when people are putting their data and software into the cloud, sacrificing absolute control for distributed convenience. Housing may be moving more slowly in this direction since the wealth and status link is so strong, but as someone who have always rented I find the idea of housing as service to be natural. I wouldn't be surprised to see other areas of life also turn into services: people already subscribe to organic vegetable deliveries and get their books sent home. In a while the books will instead all be on an ebook reader, just like Spotify is removing the music collection in favor of a service.
But as the Kindle 1984 debacle shows, we better get some protections for our access too. Services can be broken far too easily right now, especially in the world of not entirely stable business models and IP regimes we are living in. Fixing the legal and contractual stability will be necessary for the services to roll onto the roads.
This has been a nice week for life extension research, with the Nature paper
Rapamycin fed late in life extends lifespan in genetically heterogeneous mice by Harrison et al. (free News and Views) showing that the immunosuppressant boosts lifespan in middle aged mice, and Science countering with Caloric Restriction Delays Disease Onset and Mortality in Rhesus Monkeys by Colman et al. showing that in a longitudinal intervention study rhesus monkeys do seem to benefit from caloric restriction.
As a result, I was interviewed in TV4 Nyhetsmorgon (in Swedish) together with the author Regina Lund and biologist Martin L Olsson. Not the deepest discussion possible, but a nice start of the day.
An interesting issue that came up: Regina and me agreed life extension would be good because it would favor long-term planning. She had a buddhist perspective where we always get reincarnated new chances, but longer lives would give us more time to express them. As I see it, a longer life leads to better chances of karma catching up with people through normal, non-supernatural causality. And of course, plain self-interest means that a long lived person has a stronger interest in the future.
Dagens Nyheter hada an article by Per Snaprud that appeared to criticise the monkey experiment on ethical grounds. He quotes Mats Spångberg, chief veterinarian at the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control who doubts the experiment would have been approved in Sweden. The only use of monkeys in Swedish research is AIDS vaccine research. The article concludes by stating that the virus kills 2 million people every year, 270,000 of whose are children.
But ageing kills 100,000 people worldwide each day directly or indirectly. 100% of humans and monkeys are "infected".
It might be factually true that caloric restriction monkey experiments are unlikely to be approved in Sweden, but ethically it seems to me that the case for the experiment is strong. The need for understanding and limiting the ravages of ageing is enormous when measured in lives lost (not to mention suffering and loss of human capital). The persistent hunger likely experienced by the monkeys is presumably not too different from what monkeys would experience in the wild where food access is haphazard. If the monkeys in the CR experiment have lives worth living - which seems to be the case - the extension of these lives adds value. This is true even if the quality is somewhat lowered by hunger compared to ad libitum fed monkeys; it seems unlikely that the value of the longer life and reduction of illness can be completely offset by plain hunger.
My and Nick's paper Cognitive Enhancement: Methods, Ethics, Regulatory Challenges is now officially out (Science and Engineering Ethics 2009, Pages 1-31). I think I have already mentioned it here before, but it is always fun to beat one's drum.